View Full Version : Washington’s Defense Budget Backslide

02-17-04, 06:39 AM

Guest Column: Washington’s Defense Budget Backslide

By Winslow T. Wheeler

Scared of the implications for the November elections, President Bush and the civilian managers of his Pentagon are running away from the cost of the war in Iraq. The only crowd hot-footing it faster away from their responsibilities are the Democrats in Congress and on the campaign trail.

The top generals of the Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force have made it clear the politicians’ backsliding is a real problem, but unless someone of character in Washington intervenes, it will be the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan who suffer the consequences.

When he held his very first press conference on May 31, 2001 as President Bush’s new Comptroller (or Chief Financial Officer) of the Defense Department, Dov Zakheim promised he would end the “pathological system” (his words) behind the Clinton administration’s methods of paying for ongoing conflicts. No more, Zakheim said, would he permit “deliberate underfunding” in budget requests in anticipation of later supplemental appropriations bills to fix them.

“The president,” he said, “made very, very clear he does not want supplementals.”

Today, Mr. Zakheim and President Bush are singing a different tune. They are delaying until January 2005 their request to Congress for funds for the fighting and occupation in Iraq for the fiscal year that starts three months earlier on October 1, 2004.

After the request is sent, it will take still more months for Congress to pass it, probably in the late spring, maybe not until the summer. Thus, the troops in Iraq will be hung out in the budget wringer for six to nine months after the start of fiscal year 2005.

Zakheim says the delay is necessary because it is impossible to predict the costs. That’s strange, the Army has a specific plan for what troops it will need in Iraq in 2005; I’ve seen a copy. If President Bush and Zakheim are so uncertain of future events in Iraq, they can simply plan for the worst. It’s a normal defense planning principle; at the very worst, it will provide too much support for the troops.

The consequences of the president’s inaction will be real. As a budget analyst at the Senate Budget Committee, I saw it all happen year after year with former President Clinton’s last minute supplementals for his military operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and elsewhere. Until Congress appropriates the new money, the Pentagon will borrow money from its “Operations and Maintenance” accounts that today pay for training, weapons maintenance, and other things we need more of when at war.

A budget intended to support the troops at peacetime levels will be stretched for six to nine months to support them at wartime levels. Corners will be cut; training will be delayed, and supplies will be scrimped.

The Democrats are, of course, all huffy. Senator Hilary Clinton, D-NY, told Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Feb. 5 that his delayed support for the troops was “inappropriate.” Indeed, it is no more inappropriate than her spouse’s shafting the troops in the same manner. Senator Jack Reed, D-RI, indignantly told Rumsfeld he had an “obligation to come before [Congress] with a detailed estimate of the cost and what you propose to do in the way of covering those costs.” That’s a strange approach for a member of the only institution in our government that can make the money available. Put together your own plan, Senator.

Then, of course, there’s front-running presidential challenger John Kerry. He went along with Bush’s push for war in October 2002, but opposed his request for troop support and reconstruction money in September 2003 when he was trying to catch up with war opponent Howard Dean in the polls. Now he’s reproaching Bush for his budget delay. Mr. Kerry seems adept at hopping onto whatever war bandwagon suits the moment.

On Feb. 3, the Chiefs of Staff of the Army and Air Force and the Commandant of the Marine Corps put an end to argument over the merits of the issue. They told Congress they had no good solution for how to “bridge” the months they will be without new money to pay for the ongoing operations.

Thanks to a president who values his political convenience above the troops and a gaggle of Democrats without the character to solve the problem on their own, the troops in Iraq will be sucking hind tit for six to nine months after the November elections. Rather than pretending there’s no problem or simply jeering from the bleachers, someone in Washington needs to demonstrate some leadership.

Guest Contributor Winslow Wheeler is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Center for Defense Information. After working for U.S. senators from both parties and for the U.S. General Accounting Office for 31 years, he is writing a book about Congress and defense policy, “The Wastrels of Defense.” He can be reached at winslowwheeler@comcast.net. Please send Feedback responses to dwfeedback@yahoo.com.